A team of international researchers were able to observe and capture images of the rare Omura's whale for the first time.
According to the researchers, the discovery is considered a significant one because it can provide them with more insight regarding the characteristics of this elusive whale species.
Before the team's discovery, not much is known about the Omura's whales and they were often mistaken as members of a different species, such as the Bryde's whale, Discovery News reported.
The aquatic animal's genetic uniqueness was only confirmed in 2003 after samples taken from Japanese whaling expeditions and carcasses of beached whales were analyzed. Although the data helped biologists identify the species, it did not offer much information about the animals' characteristics since the samples were obtained from dead whales.
But then, while studying marine mammals off the coast of Madagascar in 2011, the researchers led by Salvatore Cerchio of the New England Aquarium and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution spotted a group of animals which they thought were Bryde's whales.
Then, in 2013, they spotted the same group of animals and noticed the distinct markings on their jaws, which feature white and dark shades. These led them to believe that they are not Bryde's whales. After conducting DNA testing using skin biopsies from the animals, the researchers were able to confirm that they are indeed Omura's whales.
Since then, the researchers closely followed and studied the whales for two years. Through their efforts, they were able to document a total of 44 groups of whales, according to the Washington Post.
According to Cerchio, one of the factors that made it difficult for biologists to identify Omura's whales was their small size since adults only tend to grow between 33 and 38 feet. But, through Cerchio and his team's findings, other researchers will be able to learn more about these rare animals.
"What little we knew about these whales previously came primarily from eight specimens of Omura's whales taken in Japanese scientific whaling off the Solomon and Keeling Islands and a couple of strandings of dead animals in Japan," he said in a press release.
"This is the first definitive evidence and detailed descriptions of Omura's whales in the wild and part of what makes this work particularly exciting," he continued.
Cerchio said he plans to carry out follow-up studies on the whales to learn more about their behavior, communication styles and population density.
The study conducted by the researchers was published on October 15 in the Royal Society Open Science Journal.
Check out the first video footage of the Omura's whale captured by Cerchio's team below.